Ireland's Unique Promise for Nuclear


Cross posted from my guest post at The Fitzwilliam.

In 1978, prominent musicians organised an ‘anti-nuclear roadshow’ (“Ireland’s Woodstock”) to protest plans to build a nuclear power station in Ireland. The popularity of the roadshow was a precursor to the next five decades of opposition to nuclear in Ireland and a move towards an alternate vision of the future – a future powered by renewable energy.

In the decades since, faced with calls to decarbonise, Ireland has bet all its chips on renewables. And the bet is paying off: In a given month, about 40% of total electricity comes from wind, making us the third highest in wind generation per capita in the world. But a naive calculation of cost – the amount of money needed to generate a unit of electricity – obscures the expensive reality of renewables.

Renewables have several fundamental problems; particularly, the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing. Because energy demand doesn’t generally rise and fall with the speed of the wind or the intensity of the sun, renewables necessitate an alternate, complementary source of power which can take over when supply is insufficient.

Solar is difficult to deploy at scale in high-latitude countries. There is a reason why Irish people are so pale. And this is part of the reason why Ireland has unusually high electricity prices. When the grid is dominated by a single variable source, the problem of smoothing out demand is significant.

When someone in Ireland turns on the kettle on a cloudy, calm day, that energy has to come from somewhere – and that somewhere is most likely natural gas. Where coal takes time to start to burn, and batteries exhaust their capacity, natural gas can be burned as long as it can be mined or imported. And due to the natural variation in wind and solar power, natural gas is their natural complement, without which renewable energy becomes infeasible.

A fully renewable Irish grid would require massive amounts of battery storage to maintain the base load – the minimum level of demand on the grid. There are various ways to avoid having to use conventional batteries for this, which don’t (yet) have nearly the requisite storage capacity. For example, there is one pumped water storage station in County Wicklow, which stores potential energy by raising and lowering water to meet demand.

Ireland has looked for ways to divorce wind and natural gas through speculative research. One emerging research field is that of electrofuels, the conversion of energy into a liquid or gas form. New energy storage technologies like these face serious challenges in reaching infrastructure scale at a reasonable price. For now, they’re not a real solution to the unhappy marriage of renewables with fossil fuels.

Nowhere is the tension between public opinion and reality more visible than with Ireland’s only coal-fired power station, Moneypoint. The station is capable of producing 25% of Ireland’s power generation output, and is regularly embroiled in pollution scandals. However, the station enjoys protection from decommissioning in the near future because of the stability of its energy supply.

A bitter reality comes into focus: the use of intermittent sources of power chains us to an indefinite, and inextricable, dependency on natural gas. The environmental implications are grim.

Eirgrid, the Irish grid authority, is optimistic about its ability to add more wind power, riding on the success of its previous projects to increase renewable energy penetration. But we are approaching physical limits on how much variable power supply the grid can sustain. Historically, Ireland can face periods of up to two weeks of low or gentle wind, during which wind power generation is small. The amount of energy storage required to smooth out dips on this scale is massively beyond our current capabilities.

Ireland’s nifty nuclear niche Unlikely as it seems, Ireland has a trick up its sleeve that other countries lack. Ireland has a blanket ban on nuclear power, as per section 18 of the Electricity Regulation Act, 1999. After this ban, the committee for nuclear regulation was made redundant and promptly dissolved. This leaves Ireland in a unique position – following a vote of the Oireachtas (parliament) to un-ban nuclear, Ireland would be one of the few countries to have no regulation on nuclear power at all.

The closest relative Ireland has to a nuclear regulatory authority is the Environmental Protection Agency, which is only responsible for some odd bits like radioactive materials in medical products.

This, ironically, is Ireland’s greatest promise. Conventional nuclear regulators have become notorious for regulating the technology out of viability. It’s telling that, under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the United States, not a single new nuclear power plant has entered operation since 1975. A hard-line stance on safety based on outdated assumptions has stalled progress in most parts of the world. In reality, exposure to sufficiently low levels of radiation has no adverse health effects, and may even be beneficial.

Ireland has the potential to leapfrog over an entire generation of ineffective nuclear regulators, and avoid the traps of the early adopters. The power of laggards can be seen in the case of the Irish state postal system, which resisted automation until the 1990s. Until then, An Post sorted each parcel by hand while other countries eagerly raced past by building out the first versions of address-scanning sensors. But when Ireland did automate its post, the delay in doing so allowed the postal system to skip a generation of technology, thereby becoming one of the best in the world. An Post is now locally beloved for its ability to deliver almost anything to anyone, all by waiting while the rest of the world made its mistakes for them.

Just as Ireland leapfrogged a few generations of post automation, it can leapfrog a few generations and create a leading nuclear regulatory authority, writing sensible regulations where other states are mostly stuck with their failed first attempts. Ireland can avoid the bad ideas that led to an explosion in costs and a steep drop in nuclear innovation.

The costs of nuclear power stations differ across countries and over time in a way that doesn’t track wages or other obvious determinants of infrastructures costs, indicating that a large fraction of costs come from complying with complex and uncertain regulations. From Lovering, Yip and Nordhaus 2016. Unlike the previous approaches of government-funded construction, a clean slate on policy serves as an unusually good match for the advent of a new class of nuclear reactor – the small modular reactor (SMR). The technology promises to be cheaper, safer, and more affordable through economies of scale. Unlike larger nuclear reactors that require government backing, the private market can continually fund companies that manufacture SMRs. Because SMRs will be built and designed elsewhere, leaving only the assembly to take place on-site, the development and deployment of these reactors is a viable route to energy independence and decarbonisation, without incurring massive cost overruns. SMRs are not likely to be operational within the decade, but Ireland has a comparative advantage in speeding that up by lowering the regulatory roadblocks.

Much of Ireland’s recent economic growth has been driven by exploiting regulatory niches. At its worst, this is tax evasion. But at its best, it’s a win-win situation that drives innovation. With the recent rise in corporation tax, Ireland has lost its current regulatory niche. But it can regain it by becoming the regulatory sandbox for the nuclear industry.

Changing public attitudes to nuclear One of the reasons why public sentiment toward nuclear power has veered negative in Ireland is the Sellafield waste storage site. That site, situated on the English coast, was embroiled in a scandal in which radiation was accidentally released into the water, reaching Ireland. This perception of danger remains, even after it was found that the amount of radioactivity released was minuscule, well below the natural background levels.

After 9/11, the ever-so-slight chance that Sellafield, or another nuclear site, would be targeted in a terrorist attack exacerbated the fear of nuclear power. The government even distributed iodine tablets to every family in preparation for this scenario.

This may have contributed to the growing generational gap in attitudes toward nuclear power: older people remember the fear from the roadshow and Sellafield eras, but the younger generation is more nuanced. The strong anti-nuclear mood of the 1970s has since cooled to merely a sort of ambivalence, with a recent poll showing a 50/50 split on attitudes towards nuclear power.

This is a promising improvement – an open-minded public leaves the door open for a social movement to push through actual change. In the US, Britain, and other populous countries, the political environment is so dense with parties fighting over even minute policy quibbles that unlikely levels of political coordination and consensus have to be achieved to actually enact new policy. In Ireland, the barrier is far lower. Small countries like this one have few people with the will to change policy, and even fewer with the expertise.

Like startups that begin by strategically tackling smaller markets to build momentum, good policy can begin in countries that have the least political headwind and coordination costs. A perfect storm – growing public support, a national energy crisis, and a new class of reactors – means that the time is ripe for Ireland to become the first true innovator in nuclear policy. Ireland can serve as a role model of what good nuclear regulation looks like, and export its successes to the world.